Understanding Our Church

A Treasury of Arkansas Writers Discussing the Catholic Faith

‘Poor souls’ in purgatory are not alone; Christ guides them to heaven

Published: November 1, 2003

By Father Raphael Kitz, OCD

On Nov. 2, we commemorate our beloved dead. The feast is called All Souls, but the Church qualifies souls by adding “of the faithful departed.” One who leaves this world as “faithful” is in a relationship of grace and friendship with God through Jesus Christ. This can be expressed by saying that the believing Christian has died with Christ and is asleep in the risen Lord.

One of the prefaces of the eucharistic celebration for this day proclaims life is not ended, but transformed. Another important truth to consider is that Scripture portrays the death of a believer as an advent and encounter with the Lord. In the Gospel of John Jesus tells his disciples he is going to his Father’s house to prepare a place for them and will come back again to take them to himself so they may be where he is, in the Father’s glory, close to his heart. (14:1-3)

When someone we love dies, a question that continually surfaces in the mind is whether our loved one is in heaven — sharing the glory of God that shines on the face of Christ — or in purgatory. In other words, is the departed in a phase of purification between death and his or her final destination? So often Catholics talk about the “poor souls” in purgatory.

In a way, that is an unfortunate description of those who leave this world and go to the Father. They are filled with hope and longing to be with Christ fully, completely and eternally. They are not alone on this final phase of their journey, but are with someone who loves them and died for them: they are accompanied by the risen Living One.

The Lord is with them at the beginning, middle and end of the way, since he is the Way. The Church’s teaching on purgatory is quite brief. It can be summed up by stating purgatory exists and those undergoing their purification can be helped by the prayers and good works of the faithful, especially through the sacrifice of the Mass.

Since the teaching of the Church on the subject is so limited, it has left ample room for new theological reflections by contemporary theologians. One theologian who has reflected deeply on this doctrine is Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. He points out if the teaching on purgatory is to be Christian it must have a Christological dimension.

In other words, the mystery of Christ must be present and active during this interim period. He said the faithful departed are purified by an encounter with the crucified and risen Lord. It is an encounter in which the Lord cleanses or burns away any resistance or obstacle. Some saints such as St. Teresa and St. John of the Cross speak of a loving flame that purifies and transforms a person.

The latter saint is explicit by calling this living flame of love the Holy Spirit. The Spirit purifies in this life until one is completely transformed into Christ. If the transformation has not taken place in this life it will be done after death before the final destination of God’s glory in Christ. We can see then the purifying process is a very consoling and personal mystery.

God himself through his Son by the power of the Holy Spirit prepares the faithful departed for final glory. Our beloved dead are in a loving hand. We should rejoice in their good fortune. It should be a consolation to us also as we await the one who will encounter us lovingly at the hour of our death.